The Auburn Tigers were outsized, outshot, out-rebounded, generally out-everythinged. “The numbers say that, boy, you shoulda won,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said afterward, baffled. But the Tigers never got outfought, and they rode the stunning performances of classy guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, who combined for half a hundred points — with 26 and 24, including 11 by Harper in overtime — to stun their superiors.
“No matter how low we got, no matter how much adversity we faced, we always believed we could get to this, and we always lived for this moment,” said Brown, whose team earned the right to play top-seeded Virginia in the national semifinals Saturday.
The two teams couldn’t have come into the game from more different standpoints. Kentucky was the physical powerhouse chock full of five-star, NBA-bound recruits, appearing in a record 34th Elite Eight. Auburn was the come-lately full of rejects who had upset Kansas and North Carolina to get to this stage, and who had little basketball lore on their side to speak of other than Charles Barkley, whose monument stands on campus. It was a supremacy imbalance that Calipari did nothing to dispel when he had flippantly kidded the day before the game of the Barkley statue, “I peed on it.”
It was a fool’s errand the Tigers were on, really, trying to defeat the winningest team in college basketball annals, one that beat them twice in the regular season, and to do it while shorthanded, too. You kept waiting for the superior Wildcats to punch a hole in the scoreboard, especially after they led by 11 in the first half.
On top of everything, the Tigers were without their best player, the versatile 6-foot-8 Chuma Okeke, lost to a ruined knee against Carolina, a sickening turn. Initially, Okeke was in too much pain to come to the arena, but he showed up behind the bench in the second half, to help fire up the Tigers. So too did a social media post of a banner, presumably hung by some Kentucky fans, that appeared to mock Okeke’s injury. The banner showed a sketch of a player in a wheelchair, and it read, “Okeke . . . are you riding?” Brown saw it Sunday morning, and it made him irate.
“I thought it was disrespectful and a slap in the face,” Brown said. “I’m glad we were able to shut that up.”
The Tigers had to hope that without Okeke, “the sum of our parts are bigger than anything else,” as Coach Bruce Pearl had put it Saturday. At every spot on the floor, the Tigers were a little smaller or thinner or a little less decorated than the Kentuckians, “looking up at them at most positions,” Pearl had pointed out.
“When you may not be quite as talented, you have to have some things up your sleeve,” Pearl said. “I’ve played a lot of cards. I don’t know how many more cards we have to play. But these guys believe.”
At first, the Wildcats’ sheer physical superiority tested that belief. The Tigers, the nation’s leading three-point shooting team, got off to a nightmarish start as they went just 4 for 15 in the first 10 minutes or so, bothered by the Wildcats’ length and speed. “That hand gets there faster, quicker, longer than most,” Pearl said.
But then those marvelous guards, neither of whom had been much-recruited nationally, began to impress themselves on the game. Here’s how potent they were: Of all the turns in a close overtime affair, two plays stand out most as remarkable: a four-point play from the junior Harper that altered the first half, and a five-point play by Brown, a senior, that swayed the action in the second.
With 2:51 left in the first, Harper knocked down a deep, contested, angled three-pointer — and drew a foul from Kentucky’s Jemarl Baker. He smoothly made the free throw to cut Kentucky’s once-comfortable lead to six and make it a game in earnest.
Then Brown’s heroic sequence completed a 10-0 run for the Tigers to open the second half. With 17:51 to go, the Wildcats’ Tyler Herro lunged at Brown as he put up a three-pointer that missed. Brown sank two of his free throws but missed the third — then swooped several feet through the air to snare the loose ball and stepped back to deep in the corner to sink a pandemonius three.
Clearly, they were two men who intended to win a ball. They would finish with 23 of Auburn’s 30 points in the second half, hitting drives for layups, deep perimeter bombs and stalling midair stalling jumpers. Harper personally had all but three of his team’s points in overtime.
“I thought we were going to win the game the whole way, until one or two plays in overtime,” Calipari said later, still trying to figure it out how two guys he never offered scholarships to had beaten his team.
“They’re the Cinderellas of the tournament, obviously,” Pearl said.
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